Melissa Harris-Perry is the Presidential Endowed Chair in Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. There she is the Executive Director of the Pro Humanitate Institute and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is the host of Melissa Harris-Perry, which broadcasts live on MSNBC on Saturdays and Sundays from 10AM to Noon. She is the author of the award-winning Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Harris-Perry received her B.A. degree in English from Wake Forest University in 1994 and her Ph.D. degree in political science from Duke University in 1999. She also studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Harris-Perry previously served on the faculty of the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and Tulane University.
On Sunday night I indulged two of my favorite obsessions, the Christmas holidays and sentimental Americana, by watching Oprah Winfrey's special "Christmas at the White House."
This televised tour of the decorated White House immediately evoked my holiday musings from last year. In the month after Obama's election I felt like a kid at Christmas, with visions of a black president dancing in my head.
On December 2, the New York Senate passionately debated marriage equality. It was a compelling display of legal, moral, and political reasoning. Compared with the anemic, corporate-sponsored ramblings of U.S. Senate during the health care cloture discussion, the New York senate looked like the Continental Congress yesterday.
On the same day of this debate, my niece sent to me the draft of her personal essay for college admission. In it she discusses her experiences of being harassed and threatened as a gay teen. She writes:
I was only fourteen at the time. I arrived early to school that Monday morning, still exhausted from my weekend basketball tournament. As I entered my locker combination and pulled the latch that released the door from its position, a small piece of folded paper floated to the floor. I picked it up, unfolded it, and read the words, speaking them out loud, "Die dyke," I heard myself say in the empty hallway. The words startled me as I folded the paper as it had been before, and crammed it in my pocket. I quickly ran down the stairs into the counselors' office where I waited about an hour until my counselor arrived. At that moment I felt worthless. I felt as if no one cared about me, and that I should just give up on the things I believe in, and ultimately give up on myself. The harassment continued over the cycle of a month.
I was in a pew at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, on September 16, 2001. Although I was never a member of this now infamous congregation, I did attend Trinity regularly during the seven years I lived and worked in Chicago.
September 16, 2001 was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. On that Sunday Reverend Jeremiah Wright preached a sermon whose often-distorted excerpts became fodder for attack on candidate Barack Obama. Most people in America remember it as the "Chickens Coming Home to Roost" sermon.
For me, Wright's sermon on that Sunday will always be the sermon of Psalm 137.
With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamour, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.
Instead the news is currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.
On Sunday I went to the Prudential Center in Newark to hear President Obama make the case for Governor Jon Corzine's reelection here in New Jersey. Already a strong supporter of Governor Corzine I wasn't going to be convinced. And I wasn't particularly excited about standing in a long line, on a chilly afternoon to listen to two men I've heard speak dozens of times. But I was determined to go. One year ago I'd been in Newark to hear candidate Obama make his closing arguments, and I wanted to check out what an Obama rally looks like one year later.
Some elements of the atmosphere were familiar: insanely long lines, intense police presence, surprisingly jovial mood despite the chill. One thing was noticeably and distressingly different: the crowd waiting to see President Obama in Newark on Sunday was much less diverse than the crowd that greeted him in the waning days of the 2008 election. By my estimation the supporters in Newark yesterday were not exclusively, but certainly predominately, African American.
The event mirrors recent trends in the polls. Presidential job approval polls by Gallup have tracked two consistent trends in President Obama's ratings: overall decline and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans.
Feminist author Jessica Valenti's marriage to Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo was the lead wedding story in the New York Times style section this Sunday. It was odd to see this Full Frontal Feminist not only marry, but also submit to a romantic short story about her union. Indeed the Times seemed intent on portraying Valenti's marriage as a morality tale: tough feminists may talk about social equality, but all girls really want is a good man and note-worthy bustle. For some, Valenti's wedding became a lens for assessing her feminist credentials.
Valenti's story, as written by the Times, is an interesting companion to last week's National Equality March in Washington, DC. The National Equality March was clearly defined by organizers and participants as a demand for equal protection in all matters governed by civil law. It was a demonstration for justice in housing, employment, property, citizenship, and family law, but media nearly exclusively reported the event as a march for same-sex marriage equality.
For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants, as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.
My reaction to Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize elicited some decidedly "un-peaceful" responses from my friends and followers on social networking and blog sites.
As readers here at The Notion can attest -whether with glee or disdain-I have been an ardent supporter of President Obama. Despite some disagreements, I have urged the left to view this administration as an opportunity for genuine change and to regard it as friendly to progressive aims. But my response to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was not particularly celebratory.
Richard's piece asks for emotional maturity in our politics. I only partially agree. Yes, we need to halt the characterizations of Obama as savior or as anti-Christ. And we similarly should moderate our memories of the Bush years as evil or perfect. Still, I believe that the Obama win is important precisely because it injects a certain emotional valence into our electoral politics: a much needed revival of American hope. Obama won, in part, by encouraging us to feel good, to be optimistic, and to believe. The problem is when we direct that hope and belief onto the character/candidate rather than investing that optimism in the movement itself.
There is a way to hold onto hard won optimism while still demonstrating emotional restraint in the public sphere. There are some ways to intervene in this moment with optimism and effort.
For weeks the media have been covering "racism in health care reform opposition." For the most part I've found this political moment to be an interesting opportunity to discuss the meanings of race, the history of racial exclusion and violence, and the ongoing realities of racial inequality in America.
But I have also been a little baffled as to why so many liberal white Americans are shocked about the sometimes explicit, but far more often, simply implied racial bias that has infected some of the opposition to the Obama administration. My scholarship and teaching center on issues of race, blackness, and African American politics, and while I believe "racism" is interesting and important; it is not exactly breaking news. Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune laughingly suggested that he was telling his white liberal friends who were aghast at the vitriol aimed at President Obama, "welcome to my world."
My surprise that "racism" has dominated the news cycle for so long turned to tangible anxiety when President Clinton appeared on Larry King Live. Former President Clinton made a compelling case for health care reform and when asked about the racial motivations of the opposition he said:
Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These four acts of Congress were meant to protect the new nation from French immigrants. They reflected a broad paranoia that French newcomers would poison American minds and weaken the new American government.
By 1802 President Thomas Jefferson led the repeal of most of these acts because they overstepped federal authority and instituted unjust restrictions.